Mass Exodus: Zimbabwe And Rest of African Methodist Church Rejects LGBTQ Policies

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HARARE –  Zimbabwe United Methodist Church (ZUMC) in Harare became the focal point of an anti-homosexuality demonstration, marking the beginning of a major rift within the denomination.

This came after the international leadership of the United Methodist Church (UMC), a global Protestant denomination based in the US, altered certain regulations to permit gay pastors and same-sex marriage during a North Carolina conference in early May.

Leaders of the United Methodist Church have expressed regret after the Ivorian branch decided to leave the union following the repeal of a long-standing ban on LGBTQ+ clergy.

The events are the latest in a series of repercussions in Africa, where United Methodists are in the majority outside the United States, due to disputes over sexuality and theology.

In May, at the church’s first legislative meeting in five years, delegates voted overwhelmingly to remove a rule barring “avowed practicing homosexuals” from being ordained or appointed as ministers.

Unlike previous general conferences, which strengthened the ban despite debate, this change means that the Church no longer prohibits them, without necessarily requiring them to be ordained.

Each member church was free to decide for itself, and while some bishops wished to remain in the union, others preferred to disaffiliate.

On May 28, the Church of Ivory Coast, which has more than 1.2 million members, voted to secede from the United Methodists. It is one of the largest branches abroad. The United Methodist Church has approximately 5.4 million members in the United States and 4.6 million in Africa, Europe and the Philippines.

After the vote, the Council of Bishops said Wednesday that “while deploring” Ivory Coast’s decision, “we are committed to working with it to become an autonomous Methodist Church.”

“While we may not all agree, the strength of our union lies in love, respect, compassion and faith in Jesus Christ,” the Council said.

In Zimbabwe, hundreds of members of the United Methodist Church gathered last week in Harare to protest the decision to welcome LGBTQ+ members.

They sang hymns and held signs declaring that homosexuality is a sin and an abomination.

“Africa is not for sale. No to homosexuality,” read one sign. Church member James Kawaza recalled that “homosexuality is illegal in Zimbabwe.”

“The Church has aligned itself with the rainbow movement, which threatens our African traditions and human existence,” says a petition by Church members, asking their bishop, Eben Nhiwatiwa, to to act.

Bishop Nhiwatiwa could not be reached for comment.

Christian denominations in Zimbabwe and other African countries have strongly opposed welcoming homosexuals into the Church.

In January, Catholic bishops in Africa and Madagascar refused to follow Pope Francis’ call to allow priests to bless same-sex couples, saying such unions are “contrary to the will of God.”

Chester Samba, director of GALZ, an organization representing the LGBTQ+ community in Zimbabwe, expressed little hope of seeing a change in Zimbabwe and Africa’s conservative stance.

“I hope that platforms for dialogue will be created to improve understanding and welcome all worshipers, regardless of their sexual orientation,” said Samba, whose members have often faced harassment and stigmatization.

The response from the Ivory Coast division, comprising an estimated 1.2 million followers, was swift and decisive. Accusing the international leaders of straying from the Holy Scriptures and prioritizing the LGBTQ+ community over the church’s integrity, the division, known as EMUCI, made the monumental decision to sever ties with the UMC. Bishop Benjamin Boni, president of EMUCI, disclosed that the decision was formalized during a gathering on May 28 in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, stating it was made “for reasons of conscience.”

This separation, which marks the end of a more than 20-year affiliation, deals a significant blow to the UMC, as EMUCI is its largest overseas jurisdiction, constituting approximately 12 percent of the denomination’s global membership. EMUCI’s association with the UMC began in 2002, following the merge of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church in 1968 to form the umbrella church.

The issue of homosexuality has long been a contentious point within the UMC. Previous bans on same-sex marriage and the ordination of homosexual pastors underscored the denomination’s struggle to reconcile traditional doctrine with evolving societal norms. The historic decision to permit gay pastors and same-sex marriage, made at the North Carolina conference, has deepened these divisions within the church.

The Reverend Karen Oliveto, the first openly gay bishop in the UMC, shed light on these internal conflicts. Oliveto noted that a segment of the church was departing due to their reluctance to embrace inclusivity. She emphasized the paradox of building a church based on exclusion, questioning whether such actions truly align with the teachings of Jesus.

Despite Oliveto’s groundbreaking election being invalidated in 2017 after she came out, she remains in office in Mountain Sky, a region covering Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. She recently challenged the UMC’s stance on homosexuality, particularly the description of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching,” a provision that has since been removed from the UMC Book of Discipline in April 2024, according to the Christian Post.

As the ZUMC demonstration and EMUCI’s split from the UMC reverberate throughout the denomination, questions arise about the future direction of the church and its ability to navigate the complexities of modern societal values while staying true to its foundational beliefs.